I love this little essay from among Barbara Crafton's Almost Daily eMos. She captures the essence of contemplation more clearly, for me, in these few simple sentences than many more scholarly attempts:
The church in the morning is dark. The candles offer a more encouraging beauty than electric lights ever could, and so we leave them off in the sanctuary. Something about lighted candles in a church quiets the mind and stills the tongue, and the day begins with a certain hush, a quiet easing into the world.
In the evening, the sun lights the window in the sanctuary, firing all its colors and bringing them to life. It is so brilliant that you could leave the candles unlit and nobody would notice. But we light them anyway. Lighting a candle to begin a set-aside time for quiet contemplation, scripture and prayer is a signal. Do it often enough, and the very lighting of the candle triggers prayer itself. The human capacity to condition ourselves, to form habits of spiritual response to physical things, is a powerful aid to the spiritual life.
These contemplative moments are times when one understands that understanding is not the sole goal of the spiritual life. Human reason is a gift, but it is not our only gift. That quiet, receptive waiting that begins when we go to the prayer place at the prayer time, light the prayer candle, pick up the prayer book, inhale deeply the old-hymnals-fresh-candlewax-memory-of-furniture-polish smell of a place that 140 years of prayer have made holy: that receptive waiting is a gift, too. Just as we exercise our minds by learning, we exercise our capacity to receive simply by showing up in the prayer place and waiting, content to be empty until God fills us.
And then what happens, when God fills us? Might we fall to the ground, burst into ecstatic utterance? Well, we might. Mostly, though, we will just close our books when we are finished and thank each other for sharing this prayer. Then we go home, or go to work, or go make supper. Quiet. Calm. Ready for what comes. Over and over again, the same dependable readiness to meet the day or sleep the night can be mine or yours or anybody's. Just by showing up.
That's all? Shouldn't it be harder? Isn't more demanded of us? Oh, much is demanded of us in life, but it is not demanded here. Here, in the prayer place, we are not the ones who give. We are the ones who receive.